The history of apple growing in Ireland is at least 3,000 years old, even older if one counts wild crab apples blooming since the Stone Age. The fruit features often in Irish mythology; from Cúchulainn to the Children of Tuireann, and it is the source of one of the oldest fermented drinks, cider.
One of the earliest documented references to cider in Ireland is listed in Caroline Hennessy’s book Sláinte The Compelte Guide to Irish Craft Beer & Cider. The year was 1155, when chieftain Macan (McCann) was praised for his strong cider, made from apples in his own orchards in what is now the apple-growing area of Ulster.
Unlike beer or whiskey, Irish cider arrived late to the industrialisation party. It was in the mid 20th century that presses and other equipment became more efficient and larger companies began to grown. When William Magner reopened the Murphy Brewery in Clonmel, Tipperary in 1935, the era of big-brand cider began. The company changed the cider’s name to Bulmers in 1946 and nowadays the brand is part of the C&C portfolio and it’s the biggest selling cider in Ireland.
According to the National Apple Orchard Census (2012), there are 45 commercial apple growers in Ireland. Almost one third (29%) of the planting area goes to cider varieties. The counties leading production are Dublin, Tipperary, Meath, Waterford and Kilkenny, with Tipperary focusing mostly on cider apples and Dublin and Meath on culinary varieties (Waterford and Kilkenny are more evenly spread).
While there are over 70 different varieties of apple identified and documented all over Ireland, the most important cider variety in the country is the Dabinett, named after William Dabinett, who found it in the early 20th century in Somerset. It is small, greenish, bittersweet and aromatic.
Michelin apples are also popular. The come originally from Normandy and thanks to their sweet, low-acidity juice, they’re often used for blending.
A growing thirst for Irish cider
Last month, the Irish Cider Association produced its first cider report since 2012. There, it is noted that “once the spirits category is split into different variants (such as whiskey, vodka and gin) cider is Ireland’s third most popular alcoholic beverage with a market share of 7.5% in 2018, according to Revenue.”
An estimated of 50,000 tonnes of apples are being turned into Irish cider every year, and 85% of exports go to the UK. While this is a cause of concern as Brexit brings uncertainty to the industry, the report praises the quality and diversity seen in today’s Irish cider scene:
Cider consumers in Ireland are blessed with an unprecedented selection of cider brands from both craft cider producers and some well-established drinks manufacturers.”
In the recently published report, the Irish Cider Association calls on the government to reduce the excise rate on cider in order to offer relief to the cider producers. To put things in prespective: The average price of a pint of cider in a bar in Ireland is €5.14. From this, 29% goes to taxes (23% for VAT and 6% for excise). It doesn’t take a maths expert to deduce that what’s left to artisan producers after the venues have also made their profit and costs are covered is not much.
Cider consumption per capita has grown steadidly since 2015 (64,299,656 litres in 2018), and 75% of the total amount of cider sold in the country is Irish. While exports are a crucial part of the business strategy, this shows a thriving local scene.
Great times for cider lovers
We spoke with Gabe Cook, an award-winning, cider expert, educator and author of The ciderologist, who was in Dublin for the launch of the cider report. He pointed out that “this is probably the most exciting time there ever has been for Irish cider”, and noted that while Ireland has a long history of cider making, “in the last 15 years or so, a wonderful little craft movement has begun to grow, and now there are fantastic ciders being made all over the country.”
As per the most exciting thing happening in the cider world right now, he said: “We find ourselves at a time, globally, whereby flavoured ciders are providing the majority of growth and innovation. Most of these have been fruit flavoured, but the funkier end can also include hopped ciders, ciders co-fermented on grape skins and barrel aged, wild fermented fruit ciders.”
Within the cider varieties, there are subtypes of apples including “sweet”, “sharp”, “bittersweet” and “bittersharp.” The choice of these (solo or blended) along with the cider producer’s expertise, can create different styles of cider.
The United States Association of Cider Makers distinguishes 15 different styles of cider, including Heritage Cider, Fruit Cider, Rosé Ciders and Spiced Ciders. But in principle, the simplest way to divide ciders is by their sweetness.
So we have dry ciders (the least sweet), medium-dry and sweet. Flavoured ciders (ie. with raspberries, limes, and other fruits) can be counted separatedly, but they can also have varying levels of sweetness.
When tasting cider, as with wine, start with its appearance: colourand clearness, as well as bubbles. Then, proceed to sense the aromas and finally taste it.
The site drinkingcider.com has a number of resources for those whisihng to tune their cider tasting technique including a very handy cider flavour wheel, ideal to enhance our sensorial vocabulary.
And speaking of tasting cider, here are a few delicious Irish ciders to try this summer.
Falling Apple Irish Rosé Cider
€3.69 – Available at select independent off-licences nationwide
A crisp, delicate rosé cider by the Carlow Brewing Company.
It combines Jonagold, Golden Delicious, Falstaff and Elstar apples into an additives-free, no added-sugardrink made with 100% Irish apples.
It is balanced, with notes of rasberry complementing the juicy apples. Not too sweet, one that dry wine drinkers can enjoy.
Dan Kelly’s Irish Cider
€4.29 – Available at Martin’s Off Licence, Drinkstore.ie, and more
The hand-picked fruit for this classic cider comes from Boyne Grove Fruit Farm, the maker’s own family farm in the Boyne Valley.
It combines cider apples with cooking and dessert varieties and has a light carbonation, concentrating on the flavours instead.
It is dry, with a pleasant zestiness, like the bite of a fresh apple with the peel.
Highbank Drivers Cider
€52.50 (330ml x 15) – Available at highbankorchards.com
This premium non alcoholic cider is made from organic cider apples with no added sugar from the Highbank Farm in Kilkenny.
It is made in small batches, following a natural, apple to bottle approach.
It is intensely flavoured and well-rounded, with a long, medium-sweet aftertaste.
Mc Ivors Medium Cider
€3.50 – Available at Tesco, SuperValu, Martin’s Off Licence, Centra
Coming from Armagh, NI (a.k.a. the orchard county).
This blend of over 10 apple varieties offers a refreshing and easy to drink cider with a moderate level of sweetness.
Mouth-filling and with apples clearly dominating the flavour profile, it is a taste of Irish summer.
Stonewell Dry Cider
€4.45 – Available at O’Briens Wine, Martin’s Off Licence and more
This premium Irish cider comes from Nohoval near Kinsale, Co. Cork.
Its blend highlights the tanninc edge of heritage varieties Dabinett and Michelin grown in Laois and Waterford orchards, fermented using Champagne yeast.
Fresh and sweet on the nose, it surprises with quite a dry palate, great for cider drinkers that want a bit of sharpness in their sips.
FEATURE BY GABY GUEDEZ